Canadian government blasted twice over media policy

Nature, Canadian Science Writers Association call for freedom for scientists to speak

Canada’s scientific reputation around the world took a black eye this month after the science journal Nature called out the federal government for muzzling its scientists.

“It is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free,” said the magazine in an editorial blast directed towards the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The magazine contrasts the Conservatives’ policy with a new open approach in the U.S. which sets clear guidelines for scientists when they’re approached by reporters.

The change in the U.S. began in 2006 after charges that the former Bush administration had silenced U.S. scientists.

“Over the same period, Canada has moved in the opposite direction.

“Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers,” the journal said.

The editorial also points out that a Feb. 16 letter to the government from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association asks for the same thing. The letter was written during a symposium on the topic during the  Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver last month.

“Prime minister, we want freedom of speech for federal scientists because we believe it makes for better journalism, for a more informed public, for a healthier democracy, and it makes it more likely that Canadians will reap the maximum benefit from the research they fund,” the letter said.

It said that federal scientists can’t speak to reporters without the “consent” of media relations officers. “Delays in obtaining interviews are often unacceptable and journalists are routinely denied interviews.”

It said that fisheries scientist Kristina Miller wasn’t allowed to grant interviews about her work – findings that had been published in the journal Science on the causes of sockeye salmon decline in B.C.

However, Miller told the Cohen Commission last summer that she had been directed not to publicly discuss her findings ahead of her testimony – out of respect for the inquiry – but said the same instructions applied to other DFO staff.

Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission MP Randy Kamp says that scientists are allowed to talk to the media, although there are limits.

“They do in many cases.” During 2011, Fisheries scientists provided 380 media interviews across Canada.

Sometimes department employees have to comment.

“It’s not always a science-based issue.

“That’s my understanding of how the procedure works,” said Kamp who is parliamentary secretary to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield.

He pointed out the media did get access to a fisheries biologist during the controversy over unauthorized water withdrawals from the North Alouette River a few years ago.

“The department will determine who will be the best spokesman on that particular issue.”

According to local environmental activist Jack Emberly, Fisheries and Oceans Canada just picks its experts to help it promote the fish farm industry.

He said the department dismisses experts it disagrees with and picks experts who support its objectives. He pointed out the department ignored its own experts when they warned about the East Coast cod disaster.

It did the same thing when it came to warnings about unsafe importation of salmon eggs for fish farms.

“The DFO has used bogus expert data to make wild salmon policy decisions that the public would never have agreed to,” Emberly said.